A high school teacher by day, Katie Nguyen was prepared for the shift to virtual teaching in at least one major way—she had already dealt with hecklers.
"Most teachers haven't bombed at an open mic," says Nguyen, who instructs Spanish in North Portland. "I don't think I take it as personally as most folks."
Her work as a teacher has informed how she deals with comedy club hecklers, too. Nguyen has no interest in roasting overly vocal audience members. Instead, she gives them a polite, nonconfrontational talking to.
Nguyen recalls a standup showcase a few years ago at a now-defunct bar—she can't remember which one—where an intoxicated woman in the front row kept loudly commenting on each performance. So after doing her best to ignore the woman's outbursts during her own set, Nguyen sat next to the woman at the bar, and gently let her know that she was likely distracting the comedians. It worked—the woman was receptive, apologetic and stopped disrupting.
"One thing you learn in education is that behavior is an expression of needs, whether it's 'I need attention,' or 'I need help,'" says Nguyen. "A lot of times, hecklers don't just understand how to be at comedy shows. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt."
Nguyen has been an omnipresent name in Portland comedy for years. She's performed at seemingly every venue and festival in town. In 2018, she published a satirical piece in The New Yorker titled "Times You Didn't Tip Enough and Ruined Someone's Life." Before the pandemic, she co-hosted the storied weekly showcase Earthquake Hurricane, and she's continued teaching classes at Helium Comedy Club post-lockdown.
So for a career as prolific as Nguyen's, it's somewhat surprising to hear that she's only had to deal with hecklers a handful of times. That's possibly explained by the fact that Nguyen isn't exactly boisterous herself.
Onstage, Nguyen speaks the same way she does in conversation. Her quick, soft-spoken delivery is just above a murmur, and she often hunches over while gesticulating with whatever hand isn't clutching the mic close to her face.
Her refusal to humiliate hecklers fits into a larger comedic philosophy. Nguyen's jokes are noticeably lacking in mean spirit. Instead, she pulls humor out of the absurdity of everyday situations. In one bit, Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, imagines telling a co-worker that no, she wasn't a "diversity hire," she was an "adversity hire": "I wasn't hired to bring an underrepresented perspective to the table. I was hired to start shit, make things real difficult for everyone around here."
Nguyen's unassuming, naturalistic stage presence is perhaps explained by the fact that she never intended to become a comedian.
While she was growing up in Minnesota, Nguyen's friends and family often praised her comedic abilities. But it wasn't until she moved to Portland in 2011 for a corporate office job that her peers began suggesting that she pursue comedy in earnest. She decided to sign up for an improv course at the now-shuttered Brody Theater, thinking it'd be a good creative exercise and a way to meet people in a new city. She had no intention of ever performing in a club.
"Generally, in public, I try not to be very conspicuous, not make eye contact with people," she says. "I didn't think of myself as the 'I like to be the center of attention' kind of person."
But the positive feedback she received surprised her. Nguyen kept taking classes until she was offered a spot in Brody's improv ensemble. Before long, she was getting regularly booked as a standup, too. It didn't occur to Nguyen that she had become a comedian until a couple years into her career, when a stranger outside a bar mentioned that they had seen her perform before.
"I was actually really rude," she recalls. "When they said that, I was like, 'What?' I never said thank you and kept on walking. It just blew my mind."
Now, she's undeniably a local stalwart, and one of the most idiosyncratic standups on the scene. Though her material is mostly clean and nonconfrontational, it's anything but bland. Onstage, Nguyen lurches from deadpan bits about arbitrary beauty standards to absurd act-outs of her own version of Rihanna's "Sex With Me," which include bragging about never eating food off the floor and getting over the time her fifth-grade crush told her she had a mustache.
Still, Nguyen is the first to admit that her comedy isn't for everybody.
"People with a weird sense of humor tend to like me more," she says. "There's people who think I'm not funny at all, who like things that I don't think are funny at all. That's cool."
Despite her reserve—both on- and offstage—lockdown has affirmed for Nguyen that she likes performing live.
"It's not 'I miss being onstage' so much," she says. "It's a community thing, it's a social thing for me.'"
For the most part, she's forgone digital shows during the pandemic, instead focusing on scripted projects. That includes Crouching Comic, a semi-autobiographical short movie she starred in and co-wrote with local director Alberta Poon. Shot last Labor Day weekend with an all-Asian American cast and crew, the film stars Nguyen as an anxious aspiring comedian, and pulls from Nguyen's life as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, and Poon's life as a Chinese American filmmaker. Though finished, COVID-19 has indefinitely postponed its premiere.
"Sharing my story as an Asian woman comic from a family of immigrants in a comedic short film was an incredibly meaningful and validating opportunity," says Nguyen. "I can't wait for people to eventually see it."
If the film's Instagram account can be taken as a mood board, Crouching Comic will be full of heart and goofball humor. Populated with photos of behind-the-scenes antics, pictures of the cast and crew's moms inexplicably holding fruit, as well as infographics about dismantling white supremacy, the account also encapsulates the kind of wisdom that informs Nguyen's heckling policy: Sometimes being compassionate and refusing to accept bullshit are the same thing.
"I think people kind of see heckling as an opportunity to show my mean side or my roast-y side, but like I said, I do think it is an expression of need," she says. "It's all about teaching and modeling appropriate behavior, really."